Primary Challengers Are Good For Incumbents... And America

Ben Howe | Apr 01, 2014

Primaries are often treated with disdain by those who work or otherwise keep up with politics. Just about every election season we are given a glimpse into the thought processes and defenses of incumbency and the screams for term limits. With some saying “primary everyone” and others saying “don’t endanger the majority with reckless candidates” it has become a major point of division in the party.
If you believe what many in the party leadership say, the tea party/grassroots portion of the Republican party is continually and consistently pushing ridiculously under-qualified and reckless candidates into primaries against solid conservative republicans; blindly supporting anyone that gives a good speech simply because these good and noble men who currently hold the office dared defy them in 6% of their voting record (incidentally while rescuing us from political obscurity).
To be fair, there are some in the grassroots that take the approach of “anyone but so-n-so” even when it would clearly not be in our best interests to nominate the guy that announces awful policy prescriptions at every stop just because he says “liberty” a lot.
However, some primary races this year have been good examples of why they are a good thing. Always in theory, and often in practice.
I don’t believe term limits for legislators makes sense, but I do believe they should live under the constant fear of being fired. I think it’s a good idea to remind these guys from time to time that they need to perform to keep their position.
Let’s get the first objection out of the way. “Performance” in this context is subjective. One conservative’s Reagan may be another’s Carter. We all have various lines we don’t want crossed. We all have some issues we are pragmatic about and others we consider non-negotiable. So certainly the “job performance” is going to be subject to the voter’s personal view of the situation and it will be up to the candidate or incumbent to make their case. It’s rare that I find disagreement on this point, even among the staunchest supporters of our current incumbent class. Brad Dayspring of the NRSC has said as much as have many others.
But invariably, there are two additional points that are brought up that are, in a word, baloney.
The first is that there is a limited pool of money in an election year and that it is foolish for us to “waste” this money on candidates that “can’t possibly win.” This concept, put forth constantly by incumbent supporters, is a cornucopia of logical fallacy. In the first place, “can’t possibly win” is either a self-fulfilling prophecy or an opinion dressed as a fact. It’s cliché at this point to mention it but it bears repeating: Ronald Reagan “couldn’t possibly win.” Neither could Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, or even Barack Obama for that matter. Announcing at the outset that we shouldn’t support a challenger because of their inability to win is the weakest argument in the arsenal of the incumbent’s supporters. Not only does it ignore history as well as make the incumbent appear to have no real policy argument for staying in his job, it also immediately creates the opposite situation for the challenger who has now become the underdog. And America loves an underdog. So really the argument undermines the incumbent, not the challenger.
When this fails, which it almost always does (unless the challenger is defeated at which point there are endless “I told ya so” articles which usually fail to show that their own predictions were aligned with the actual cause of the challenger’s defeat), they usually move on to the money argument. The money argument goes something like this: “There’s only so much money so let’s put it where it will accomplish the most for our shared objectives.” Sounds reasonable. However, while not the weakest argument, it is most certainly the most insulting.
Essentially what is being argued is that because so much money is required to run campaigns, to do opposition research, to run ads on television, to go from town to town giving speeches; because so much of our political system is centered around who has the largest billionaire donors or personal fortunes, Democracy and power checks need to step aside. Yes that’s right, let’s not address the issues surrounding our expensive political system. Let’s not address the onerous campaign finance laws or the monopolistic behavior or cable networks. Instead, let’s ignore all of that and blame the people for wanting to use their money to support a challenger in the hopes that their representative consistently represents them. I won’t even bother to disassemble this argument any further. Exposing it for what it is should be enough to realize its absurdity.
Of course built in to these arguments are usually the complaints about why we want to primary a candidate in the first place. Aside from the fact that I believe a primary that just proves how awesome the incumbent already is is reason enough for me, let’s explore how this is usually presented. “It was one vote,” they’ll say. “He’s with us 80% of the time,” they’ll protest. “If he hadn’t been primaried, Obamacare wouldn’t have passed,” they’ll claim. “To govern, we need a majority first,” they’ll shriek.
This is the pragmatic argument. The “practical” or “realist” argument they’ll usually say. Of all the arguments, this one makes me the angriest.
The 80% one is usually the first play. They don’t address what comprises that 80%. They don’t look at the implications of what that 20% could mean. If an incumbent agrees on 4 out of 5 things with us, it’s “silly” to primary them. So what if that 5th thing was cap-n-trade? Or abortion? These are lines we should be willing to cross according to the incumbent supporter.
However, this and other arguments like it only work if you accept previous arguments they’ve made. If you retort that “80% is fine but I’d rather have 90%,” they’ll usually say something along the lines of “We can’t elect Jim DeMint in Massachusetts” or “the 90% guy can’t win.” In other words “accept my previous unfounded argument that your guy can’t win and then my new argument is rock solid. It’s circular reasoning. At no point do they make the policy defense of their candidate, they simply establish a circumstance where there is no other choice and then pretend it is fact. Amazingly, this works on a lot of people. But it shouldn’t.
The truth is that no one is asking for a Jim Demint in Massachusetts and no one is claiming that we need more than 80% agreement to support someone. The question has never been “how much do we disagree about?” The question is and has always been, “WHAT do we disagree about?” This point is continually lost on the typical blind incumbent supporter.
I already know that I agree with John McCain 80% of the time. The problem is that the 20% I disagree with him on is literally destroying the country. We can shake hands all day on being anti-abortion. What good does it do if we are cast further and further into never-ending rubber-stamped debt? If an incumbent supporter really wanted to make the case, they’d leave this 80% baloney at home and defend the record of the person being challenged.
But they don’t want to do that. Because, believe it or not, they are a really optimistic bunch. Probably their most redeeming quality.
They believe that, with a majority, we can fix everything. The debt, entitlements, obamacare, everything. Essentially, and this isn’t entirely illogical, even if every current Republican Senator was replaced with Ted Cruz and every Republican Congressman was replaced with Mick Mulvaney, we still wouldn’t have the numbers. We have to have the numbers. And in their minds, we need to be especially careful and not do much “risking” while we work to achieve that majority. Their optimism instructs them that this majority will do what we, the mocked and maligned “truuuuue conservatives,” have been wanting anyway.
There is zero evidence that this is true if one only looks at how we’ve acted with majority power in the past. The fact is that government grew the last time we had a majority, which proved one thing to a great many of us: the character of the majority matters as much as the majority itself. And that character is shaped by who we put in these seats and what we tell them we expect of them.
So what is the answer? Simple. Send a challenger to every incumbent. Every time. Support candidates you find compelling and trustworthy. Oppose those you don’t. But once the primaries are over, support your party. Anything less is simply contributing to our continual decline into the abyss of crushing debt. We have to stand for something as a party beyond winning. Let’s be the a party of why, not just a party of how.